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The global volume and distribution of modern groundwater

An Author Correction to this article was published on 11 June 2018

This article has been updated

Abstract

Groundwater is important for energy and food security, human health and ecosystems. The time since groundwater was recharged—or groundwater age—can be important for diverse geologic processes, such as chemical weathering, ocean eutrophication and climate change. However, measured groundwater ages range from months to millions of years. The global volume and distribution of groundwater less than 50 years old—modern groundwater that is the most recently recharged and also the most vulnerable to global change—are unknown. Here we combine geochemical, geologic, hydrologic and geospatial data sets with numerical simulations of groundwater and analyse tritium ages to show that less than 6% of the groundwater in the uppermost portion of Earth’s landmass is modern. We find that the total groundwater volume in the upper 2 km of continental crust is approximately 22.6 million km3, of which 0.1–5.0 million km3 is less than 50 years old. Although modern groundwater represents a small percentage of the total groundwater on Earth, the volume of modern groundwater is equivalent to a body of water with a depth of about 3 m spread over the continents. This water resource dwarfs all other components of the active hydrologic cycle.

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Figure 1: The global relationship between porosity, lithology and total groundwater volume with depth.
Figure 2: Quantifying modern groundwater from tritium data and numerical groundwater models of groundwater age.
Figure 3: Comparing estimates of the volume of modern groundwater derived from models and tritium analysis for 30 aquifers with the greatest number of 3H samples.
Figure 4: The global distribution of modern groundwater as a depth if it was extracted and pooled at the land surface like a flood.
Figure 5: The different volumes of water stored in the global water cycle.

Change history

  • 11 June 2018

    In the version of this Article originally published, the wrong article was listed as ref. 33; it should have been "Oki, T. & Kanae, S. Global hydrological cycles and world water resources. Science 313, 1068–1072 (2006)." This has been corrected in the online versions of the Article.

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Acknowledgements

T.G. and E.L. were supported by the NSERC and a CIFAR Junior Fellowship. M.B.C. and K.M.B. were supported by the NSF (EAR-0955750) and the Geology Foundation at the University of Texas at Austin. K.M.B. and S.J. were supported by American Geophysical Union Horton Research Grants.

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Contributions

T.G. conceived and led the project and the writing of the paper. K.M.B. led and conducted the modelling, geomatic analysis and model-related calculations as well as developed the mathematical methods for calculating the metrics. S.J. conducted the tritium data collection and analysis. E.L. derived the original geomatic data and a method for coupling geomatic data to models, as well as conducted the data analysis of total groundwater storage. M.B.C. brainstormed ideas and analysed results. All authors co-developed the methods, wrote text for their respective sections, and heavily discussed and edited all drafts of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tom Gleeson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Gleeson, T., Befus, K., Jasechko, S. et al. The global volume and distribution of modern groundwater. Nature Geosci 9, 161–167 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2590

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